Iran-Pakistan Relations

This is my term paper for Dr. Spooner’s NELC281: Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  This extended research work delves into the history of diplomatic and economic ties between two Islamic republics: Iran and Pakistan.  Both differences and similarities between the two countries are discussed.

I.  Introduction

Truth be told, there isn’t much pre-existing research exclusively on Iran/Pakistan relations.  Indeed, this fact makes some sense when considering the geopolitics of the region.  Studying Iran tends to turn one’s gaze westward to its archrival Iraq and the rest of the Arab Middle East.  Pakistani scholarship, on the other hand, necessarily focuses on its rivalry with India.  It is likely for this reason that despite sharing a border, these countries are conventionally grouped separately from one another, with Iran typically falling under the Middle East and Pakistan being considered part of South Asia.  Beyond these regions, both countries have long and storied histories with the United States.  As we will see, this positive US-Pakistan relationship will act as a constant source of tension in Iran-Pakistan relations.  Yet for these differences, Iran and Pakistan share some important bonds.  The border that divides them arbitrarily divides cultural, ethnic, and linguistic communities.  Both countries are “Islamic Republics.”  And of course there is the nuclear issue: Pakistan has the technology and Iran
wants it.

In order to better understand the history of this relationship, this research paper will investigate the diplomatic relations between Iran and Pakistan since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  First, this paper will provide some background on the relationship, starting with Pakistan’s creation in 1947.  Next, this paper will zero-in on the time period of 1979-Present.  Finally, this paper will conclude by analyzing trends in the relationship over the years and making projections about what future diplomacy between Iran and Pakistan could entail.

II.  The Shah and Pakistan: 1947-1979

When Pakistan emerged as an independent state from India in 1947, Iran was the first state to recognize the new country.[1]  A series of official encounters followed over the next few years, including Iran establishing diplomatic relations with Pakistan and a pair of visits between the respective heads of state.[2]  Iran and Pakistan signed an official treaty of friendship in 1950.[3]  Jinnah in fact wrote at length regarding the importance of fostering good relations with Iran, Pakistan’s closest neighbor.[4]  He proceeded to appoint Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan as Pakistan’s first ambassador to Iran.[5]  It is important to keep in mind that the foundation of this relationship was started by the Shah of a pre-revolutionary Iran, an ally of the United States.  In fact, until the Revolution in 1979, Islamabad was the beneficiary of generous financial aid from the Shah.[6]

From the outset, there were apparent differences between Iran and Pakistan.  While the former was a state with predominantly Shi’ite Muslims, Pakistan was established as a secular homeland for South Asian Sunni Muslims.  However, the relationship survived not only because both countries were allied with America, but also because both Iran and Pakistan were uniformly anti-USSR members of the Baghdad Pact after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – a neighbor to both countries.[7]  In fact, this common enemy would continue to serve as a unifying factor even throughout and after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and Iran’s resulting reversal of position towards America.  And it is also important to consider that the shared ethnic minorities meant shared responsibility for keeping them under control: both Pakistan and Iran worked together in these early years to suppress a rebel movement by the Baloch.[8]

The first road bump in these nations’ relationship was a border dispute around 1948.  However, Iran and Pakistan dealt with the issue delicately and cooperatively.  Finally, in August of 1960, the nations formalized their accord with the Pak- Iran Boundary Award.[9]  Ali Khan’s words are illustrative of the strong relationship between Iran and Pakistan at this time:

The successful conclusion of this highly intricate work demonstrates once again what can be achieved by peaceful negotiations between the two neighbourly (sic) nations whose relations are inspired by mutual respect, mutual goodwill, and mutual trust.  Pillars of stone and mortar may conceivably fall into despair one day, but I feel sure that the sentiments which inspire the settlement itself will remain untouched by the sands of time, for there is a boundary between two peoples who do not need a boundary: a boundary of love that joins rather than separates[10]

In 1964, Turkey joined Pakistan and Iran in forming the Regional Co-operation for Development (RCD), which sought to further economic and cultural collaboration by connecting the three countries with more roads, railways, and flights.[11]  The RCD also lowered trade and migration barriers, making it easier to ship and trade goods, and even abolishing visa requirements.  During the 1965 war between Pakistan and India, Iran supplied Pakistan with nurses, medical supplied, and oil for free, further strengthening their alliance.[12]  Iran also played a role in Pakistan’s relationship with its northern neighbor: during the 1960s and again in 1976, Iran played a leading role in normalizing relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.[13]

On July 5, 1977, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by a military coup led by General Zia-ul-Haq.  General Zia’s newly instated regime was determined to increase Islam’s role in the government.  This move towards religious intensification would be mirrored in Iran two years later with the Islamic Revolution and the establishment of Ayatollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader and religious authority of Iran.  Of course Pakistan’s move involved Sunni Islam, while Iran was to be ever more firmly rooted in Shi’ite Islam.  As we will see, this sectarian divide will come to define many aspects of the Iran-Pakistan relationship.

III.  The Imam and Pakistan:1979-1990

As both Iran and Pakistan moved towards greater integration of religion into governance and daily life, the sectarian divide between the two grew more apparent.  Pakistan feared that Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical messages would incite revolution in the Shi’ite Muslims living in their borders (estimated at around 20% in 1979).[14]  It is perhaps for this reason that General Zia was one of the first heads of state to officially recognize the new Islamic Republic of Iran.[15]  Subsequently, Pakistan’s adviser on foreign affairs, Agha Shahi, met the Iranian Foreign Minister Karim Sanjabi in Tehran on March 10, 1979.[16]  The next day, Shahi met with Ayatollah Khoneini himself to reaffirm the alliance between the two nations.[17]  As a symbol of the nations’ renewed vows, as it were, Pakistan was also one of the few states in the region that refrained from supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988.  Despite enormous pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia to back Iraq, Pakistan even went so far as to provide Iran with financial and operational support.[18]

The year of 1979 was also relationship-defining for Iran and Pakistan due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.  Neither nation stood to gain from this Soviet southward expansion, so they worked together to support the Afghani fighters against the Soviets.  However, Pakistan’s anti-USSR efforts were heavily backed by Saudi Arabia and the US, which did not sit well with Iran.[19]  As the fighting against Soviet forces continued, Pakistan and Iran began to jockey for influence in Afghanistan, with each side focusing on Pashtun and Persian groups respectively.[20]  This rivalry over Afghanistan is highlighted by a statement made by the Pakistani general in charge of Pakistan’s Afghan policy, Naseerullah Baber, “I will see to it that Iran is neutralized in Afghanistan.”[21]  Relations between Iran and Pakistan were further weakened when Ayatollah Khoneimi severed several military and political ties with international organizations as a move against the US, inadvertently cutting some ties to Pakistan as well when he abolished the RCD.[22]

In the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Iran and Pakistan continued to jockey for energy influence in the Caucus and other states to the North.[23]  In fact, with America’s archrival gone, the US was able to more aggressively target enemy regimes like the one in Tehran, which enabled its allies in the region (i.e. Pakistan) to likewise pursue cooler agendas.[24]  General Zia also oversaw a cooling of relations with Iran due to his continued importation of Sunni Islam modeled after Saudi Arabia.[25]  In return, Iran fostered the political activism of Shi’ite Muslims in Pakistan as a counterweight against not only Sunni Islam but also Saudi influence in the region.[26]  Iran even changed strategic course by befriending India, Pakistan’s long-time enemy, in an attempt to maintain the upper hand in the region.[27]

Still, while the two countries competed for influence in the region, Pakistan did not go so far as to attack the Iranian regime outright.  In 1984, when President George H. W. Bush visited General Zia with a plan to agitate the Baloch region as a way to destabilize Iran, Zia rejected him wholeheartedly.[28]  In February 1986, Khamenei’s official visit to Islamabad symbolized the continuation of the strategic relationship between Iran and Pakistan.  Ultimately, the relationship survived due to a lack of any major ethnic disputes coupled with Pakistan’s energy needs.[29]

IV. A Growing Divide: The Bloody 90s

As sectarian differences grew more apparent over the years, they began to take their toll on the Iran-Pakistan relationship.  This sectarian divide was symbolized by the establishment of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a group more in line with Pakistan’s ethnic allegiances than those of Iran.  As the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan strengthened, Iran began to mistrust Pakistan.[30]  Essentially, Iran felt surrounded by adversarial forces, in that Saudi Arabia had made inroads in Pakistan who in turn supported the Taliban.[31]  And behind all of this, of course, was the United States, who supported Saudi Arabia and originally the Taliban in their fight against the Soviets.  The years that followed saw a spike in sectarian violence that stretched the Iran-Pakistan relationship to its thinnest point ever.  In 1990, Iran’s cultural center in Lahore was gunned down by members of Sipah-e-Sahaba, killing the center’s leader, Sadiq Ganji.[32]  The killers later escaped from prison, allegedly with the help of security officials.[33]  In 1996, a second cultural center was attacked and six others killed: by 1997 both centers were burned down.[34]  The following year, six Iranian diplomats and some agents were murdered by the Taliban at the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan and Iran blamed Pakistan because Pakistan had previously assured their safety.[35]  This violent sectarian divide persisted during this decade beyond these flashpoints, as hundreds of Pakistani Shi’ites died through the 1990s in Sunni-Shi’ite clashes.[36]

While Iran-Pakistan tensions never grew hot, Iran was forced to turn to alternative allies to ensure its security interests.  Countries such as Russia and India were approached by Iran and leveraged against Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan.[37]  All the while, however, diplomatic relations continued apace.  Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto visited Iran in 1990 and 1993, meeting Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and other leaders.[38]  The following Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Iran during both of his terms as well.[39]  Similarly, Presidents Rajsanfani and Khatami made visits to Pakistan in 1992 and 2002 respectively.[40]  In 1999, Pakistani General Musharaf visited Iran and met with President Khatami, issuing a joint statement reaffirming the two countries “common cultural and Islamic foundations.”[41]

This mutual well-wishing was also extended by Iran when Pakistan and India moved to acquire nuclear weapons.  When India conducted the first tests in May 1998, Iranian President Khatami stood by Pakistan saying:

we regret what has happened and are concerned about India’s nuclear tests…we regard your security seriously and understand your position and the position of our brother, Pakistani nation. The security of Pakistan, as a brother, friendly and neighbouring state, is crucial to us. We consider their issue to be extremely important and will stand by you.[42]

And when Pakistan retaliated with tests of its own later in the month, Iran hailed their success.  On June 1, 1998, Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi was the first foreign dignitary to congratulate Pakistan in person.[43]

V.  The Post-9/11 Landscape

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were a turning point in Iran-Pakistan relations.  Most immediately, with America’s swift removal of the Taliban from Afghanistan, it appeared as if relations were going to improve.  After all, the Taliban were a source of sectarian violence and a major source of tension in the Iran-Pakistan relationship.[44]  In fact, in 2001, the two states created the Pakistan-Iran Joint Ministerial Commission on Security to further cooperation and collaboration against terrorism, drug trafficking, and sectarian violence.[45]  In November 2001, Iran’s foreign minister Kamal Kharazi and Pakistan’s foreign minister Abdul Sattar issued a joint statement from Islamabad that “the two countries had decided to collaborate in Afghanistan’s stabilization.”[46]  Iran supported the UN’s Bonn agreement which brought prominent Afghan leaders together to begin planning for Afghanistan’s future governance.[47]  In December 2002, Iran and Pakistan became co-signatories to the Kabul Declaration on Good Neighborly Relations.[48]  Iran further supported elements of the new Afghani elite that would act in accordance with Iran’s security needs by providing aid and loans to Kabul and even training Afghani soldiers.[49]  Particular beneficiaries of this aid (much like in the time of the Soviet invasion) were the Herat Shi’ites.[50]  This cooperation between Iran and Pakistan also manifested itself in a number of treaties in 2002, including a Bilateral Trade Agreement and a Defense Cooperation Treaty.[51]

However, the US response was to continue isolating Iran by boxing them out of positions of influence in Afghanistan.[52]  As a result, Pakistan saw no incentive to improve its relationship with Iran, instead opting to continue its unilateral efforts of influence Afghanistan, especially to the Pashto-speaking regions.  Pakistan even supported US efforts to destabilize Iran by backing Baloch separatists who have committed terrorist acts in Iran (an initiative previously nixed by Pakistan), abducting Iranian military and law-enforcement officials.[53]  This support continued for years, peaking in 2009 with a number of high-level commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and other civilians were killed.[54]  President Ahmadinejad went to the extent of publically accusing Pakistani officials for their involvement in the attacks.[55]  By January 2010, the issue of regional destabilization perpetuated by Pakistan was still a hot button issue, as illustrated by statements from the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Hassan Qashqavi: “the Pakistani government is expected to live up to its promises and take more serious measures to stem the terrorist and evil activities.”[56]

As Pakistan grew colder to Iranian interests, Iran once again turned to India as a source of security leveraging.  In 2003, Iranian President Khatami and Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee co-signed the New Delhi Declaration, proclaiming:

the two sides recognise (sic) that their growing strategic convergence needs to be underpinned with a strong economic relationship.  Energy sector has been identified as a strategic area of their future relationship in which interests of India and Iran complement each other. India and Iran also agreed to explore opportunities for cooperation in defence (sic) in agreed areas, including training and exchange of visit.”[57]

India has gone so far as to support Iran’s efforts in Afghanistan, viewing Iran as a conduit into Afghanistan and as a way of limiting Pakistani influence.[58]

VI.  Conclusion: Looking Ahead

In January 2010, officials from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan met and agreed on a joint framework for cooperation in addressing the destabilization along their borders.[59]  This was the second such trilateral meeting, and encompassed economic and security topics.  Iranian First Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi reaffirmed that durable security and stability in Pakistan was vital to Iranian interests, further underscoring their relationship.[60]  Despite all of the strains in the countries’ relationship, it appears that Iran is still committed to fostering good relations with Pakistan.  In February 2010, Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan Masha’Allah Shakeri proclaimed that:

Pakistan, in its capacity as a Muslim neighbor, has a special status in the macro-strategy of the foreign policy of Iran, with durable security, stability and all-round development of Pakistan being Iran’s desire.”[61] 

Later that month, Pakistani National Assembly Speaker Fahmida Mirza met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, in which they issued a joint statement calling for the expansion of ties in the political, economic, and cultural spheres.[62]

In May 2011, Iranian ambassador to Pakistan Shakeri spoke in Pakistan, repeating a quote from President Ahmedinejad that, “there exists no limit for expansion of cooperation with Pakistan.”[63]  In particular, he underscored the role that energy transactions could have in fostering a good economic relationship.  Such an emphasis on economic has been the most recent trend in Iran-Pakistan relations.  It is for this reason that a recent deal to bring oil to both Pakistan and India has been considered a “peace pipeline” and if implemented would become a defining feature of modern relations between the two countries.[64]  Still, disagreements over the pricing of the pipeline and subsequent oil sales more accurately demonstrate the current state of Iran-Pakistan relations: possibility for cooperation undermined by constant jockeying for influence in the region.  Indeed, this diplomatic façade that covers practical friction in the relationship bodes lessons for a host of other areas for potential cooperation, including political stability and nuclear technologies.

So long as the two regimes continue to find their legitimacy even partially rooted in religion, the sectarian divide will prevent them from truly cooperating without mistrust.  Until that day comes, Afghanistan will continue to be a source of contention, with both Iran and Pakistan seeking to exert their sectarian influence.  The external variables of America and India will also continue to undermine the potential for true Iran-Pakistan cooperation.  It seems the best solution for this bilateral relationship to really take root instead of continuing to be conducted at the surface level will be a reduction of the role of religion in both governments.  Promising in this vein is the emphasis on economic cooperation, which as history has shown, has the potential to change the political climate in each country.


[1] Shah Alam, “Iran-Pakistan Relations: Political and Strategic Dimensions.” Strategic Analysis, 28 No. 4, Oct-Dec 2004, pg. 526.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Harsh Pant, “Pakistan and Iran’s Dysfunctional Relationship,” Middle East Quarterly. 16 no. 2, Spring 2009.

[4]Pak-Iran Relations Since Islamic Revolution: Genesis of Cooperation and Competition.” Embassy of I.R. Iran in Pakistan.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Fereydoun Majlesi, “Pakistan, Setting the Region on Fire: Tracing the Historical Roots of Pakistan’s Current Plight.,” Iranian Diplomacy, 1 November 2011.

[7] Alam, “Iran-Pakistan Relations,” pg 527.

[8] Pant, “Pakistan and Iran’s Dysfunctional Relationship.”

[9]Pak-Iran Relations Since Islamic Revolution.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13]Pak-Iran Relations Since Islamic Revolution.

[14] Pant, “Pakistan and Iran’s Dysfunctional Relationship.”

[15] Ibid.

[16]Pak-Iran Relations Since Islamic Revolution.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Alam, ““Iran-Pakistan Relations,” pg 531.

[19] Pant, “Pakistan and Iran’s Dysfunctional Relationship.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Shireen T. Hunter, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era: Resisting the New International Order.” Praeger, (Santa Barbara, California: 2010), pg 143.

[22]Pak-Iran Relations Since Islamic Revolution.”

[23] Hunter, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era,” pg 142.

[24] Ibid., pg 143.

[25] Hunter, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era,” pg 143.

[26] Ibid., pg 144.

[27] Alam, “Iran-Pakistan Relations,” pg 527.

[28] Ibid., pg 531.

[29] Hunter, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era,” pg 144.

[30] Alam, “Iran-Pakistan Relations,” pg 531.

[31] Ibid., pg 532.

[32] Hunter, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era,” pg 145.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Pant, “Pakistan and Iran’s Dysfunctional Relationship.”

[36] Alam, “Iran-Pakistan Relations,” pg. 533.

[37] Ibid.

[38]Pak-Iran Relations Since Islamic Revolution.”

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Alam, “Iran-Pakistan Relations,” pg. 533.

[42] Alam, “Iran-Pakistan Relations,” pg. 534.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Hunter, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era,” pg 148.

[45] Pant, “Pakistan and Iran’s Dysfunctional Relationship.”

[46] Hunter, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era,” pg 148.

[47] Pant, “Pakistan and Iran’s Dysfunctional Relationship.”

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Alam, “Iran-Pakistan Relations.”

[52] Hunter, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era,” pg 148..

[53] Ibd., pg 149.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ariel Farrar-Wellman and Robert Frasco, “Pakistan-Iran Foreign Relations.” American Enterprise Institute, July 5 2010.

[56] Farrar-Wellman and Frasco, “Pakistan-Iran Foreign Relations.”.

[57] Alam, ““Iran-Pakistan Relations,” pg. 537.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Farrar-Wellman and Frasco, “Pakistan-Iran Foreign Relations.”

[60] Ibid.

[61] Farrar-Wellman and Frasco, “Pakistan-Iran Foreign Relations.”

[62] Ibid.

[63] “Pak-Iran Relations in the context of Evolving Regional and Global Scenario,” Institute of Policy Studies: Islamabad.

[64] Pant, “Pakistan and Iran’s Dysfunctional Relationship.”